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Variants may have spread to two remote First Nations in Manitoba

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TORONTO —
Fears of the new COVID-19 variants are increasing after possible cases emerged in an unlikely place: two remote First Nations communities in Manitoba.

A variant form of COVID-19 has now been identified in 10 provinces, with just one case confirmed in Manitoba. But new information out of Pauingassi First Nation, 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, raises more questions about how quickly and efficiently these variants can spread.

Seven probable cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have emerged in Pauingassi, a week after the military was brought in to help control a COVID-19 outbreak.

“How is it possible that the variant from international travel would be in a remote and isolated community?” Grand Chief Alren Dumas said.

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The cases have yet to be confirmed in Winnipeg with genomic sequencing.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres north in Pimicikamak Cree Nation — also known as Cross Lake First Nation — people are dealing with another large COVID-19 outbreak. More than 50 cases were identified this weekend, along with another possible case of B.1.1.7.

“They’re scared of this virus and especially if it’s a new variant, it’s going to create more fear,” Chief David Monias said.

Both communities are remote and both have been under lockdown for weeks, with only band members and essential workers allowed in — leaving leaders wondering how the variant could have arrived.

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“So it’s the people coming in,” Grand Chief Garrison Settee, from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, said. “We need to look at that very seriously to prevent other cases from penetrating our First Nations.”

In Pimicikamak, they introduced new measures this past weekend, including banning all public gatherings. There are more than 100 active cases in the community, and officials are warning of super spreader events, revealing in an update yesterday that one case had 40 close contacts.

Indigenous people in Manitoba have already been hit hard by COVID-19, with deaths in First Nations communities accounting for 17 per cent of the province’s total COVID-19 deaths, 33 per cent of hospitalizations and 55 per cent of ICU admissions.

The variant adds a new danger, as it is more contagious and potentially more deadly, according to early data.

Experts say it is crucial to identify the virus and contain the spread.

In this, at least, the remoteness of these First Nations communities could help.

“There is [an] opportunity with quick action and adequate resources to contain this quickly so it doesn’t move from the community to multiple other communities,” Cynthia Carr an epidemiologist, told CTV News.

Monias told CTV News on Monday that he has asked for military support in Pimicikamak due to resources being stretched thin by the outbreak.

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